Steps to Hymn Writing:
A Mostly Mythical Story, Plus Comments

by Karen Lynn Davidson

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    Whatever Parley P. Pratt may actually have been thinking when he wrote “The Morning Breaks; the Shadows Flee,” he followed certain principles and conventions that resulted in a first-rate hymn text. These comments describe some of those principles.

    Parley P. Pratt was the first editor of the Millennial Star as well as a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve. This account of Elder Pratt’s creative process is pure hypothesis, and no doubt the thoughts that we imagine here are far too simpleminded. But we don’t think Elder Pratt would object to our little game, especially if it can serve to help and encourage our aspiring hymn writers.

    In the spring of 1840, Parley P. Pratt was in England, busy working as a missionary and an editor. Several of the Twelve had traveled together to England for what was to be an exciting period of missionary work. As Elder Pratt looked out his window at some beautiful spring blossoms, he felt overwhelmed by a sense of prophetic vision: the light of the gospel was destined to spread someday through all the world, and his was the joyous privilege of being one of the first to know of the Restoration and be called to spread its message. His thoughts may have been similar to these:

    “How, but how, can I share with my brothers and sisters the great happiness I feel? When I think that one day the light of the gospel will shine in all corners of the earth, I want to jump and shout. But I’m a poet and a writer, and I know that if I want to express this joy in a meaningful way, I can’t just jump and shout. I have to work with these thoughts; I must give them dignified, significant, artistic form, and that’s a painstaking process.1

    “What I would really like to do is to write a hymn expressing what the gospel will mean to the world. I like the metaphor of the ‘light’ of the gospel. Let’s see, maybe I could compare the gospel to a lamp or a candle. No! If it’s going to spread over the whole world, then it’s more like the rising sun. How about this:

    There’s a hill far away with a bright golden ray.

    Father, please help me to love and obey.

    “Well … hm … I’m afraid that it doesn’t take me long to see some problems here. For one thing the second line has already strayed away from my central idea. I have to make up my mind: am I describing the dawn of the gospel, or am I praying to be a better person?2 The first line is my real subject, so the second will have to go. That line had a built-in problem anyway: I need to decide whether the hymn will be personal and subjective (‘I’) or whether it will reflect the feelings of a whole group (‘we’).3

    “And if I’m honest with myself, the first line doesn’t really pass inspection either. ‘There’s’ and ‘far away’ are really just filler words; they don’t carry their share of meaning. Overall, it’s a weak line. It doesn’t state my subject forcefully, and it certainly would not make a good, strong hymn title. And besides, the meter sort of waltzes along. It’s a triple meter, like a lot of nursery rhymes, not very worshipful or dignified.4

    “So I guess I start over. But I’m not discouraged! I’ve written hymns before, and I know how difficult it is. For a more suitable meter, I think I’ll follow the pattern of one of my favorite hymns:

    Praise God from whom all blessings flow;

    Praise him, all creatures here below.

    “That’s certainly a stately and dignified meter—eight syllables in each line. Well, better luck this time. Here goes:

    The dawning of the gospel plan

    Will point us to a brighter day.

    It’s coming soon to succor man

    While Satan’s darkness flees away.

    “Well, frankly, I still have my doubts. That meter is solid and dignified, and the first two lines state my central idea. But it still doesn’t really work. It doesn’t move toward anything; the lines could be in just about any order, because the meaning doesn’t build. And in spite of my metaphor of light and darkness, it still doesn’t seem like a hymn. I’ve achieved a dignified meter, but some of the words are not dignified. ‘It’s’ is so informal that it probably doesn’t belong in a hymn, and ‘succor’ is so stiff that I should probably avoid it if I can.5

    “The ‘dawn’ comparison doesn’t give freshness all by itself. What would happen if I were much more direct? ‘The morning is breaking, the shadows are fleeing.’ Oh, no! Triple meter back to haunt me. But wait …

    The morning breaks; the shadows flee;

    taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM.

    The dawning of a brighter day

    Radiant rises on the world.

    “At last I have something that really might work! But to start with, I know I have to fix ‘radiant,’ because a hymn has to maintain a perfectly consistent metrical pattern so that each stanza of the text can continue to match the same tune.6 ‘Radiant’ won’t work because I need an unstressed syllable and then a stressed one, and ‘radiant’ is just the opposite. What other word could describe the gospel dawn? ‘Glorious’? No, that still begins with a stress. The line is missing an initial unstressed syllable. How about ‘All glorious rises on the world’? No, because ‘all’ is just another filler word. ‘Majestic’—that’s it! Now I have the eight syllables I need, and the stresses come in the right place.

    “Now all I need is a good second line. I need a rhyme with ‘world.’7 Let’s see—I can’t think of how I could fit in the idea of anything that would be curled or pearled or whirled. How about ‘hurled’? ‘The beams of morn from heav’n are hurled.’ Well, that line fits the meaning of the rest of the stanza, but for one thing, ‘hurled’ is a little violent in this context. And although many hymns require ‘heav’n’ to be sung on one syllable, that’s really quite hard to sing. The only other rhyme I can think of is ‘furled.’ Furled … furled … How about the image of the flag of Zion being raised in the light of dawn? I like that! So here it is:

    The morning breaks; the shadows flee;

    Lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled!

    The dawning of a brighter day

    Majestic rises on the world.”

    Show References


    1. 1.

      Elder Pratt realizes that he is not likely to produce an excellent hymn text at the peak of a spiritual experience. He knows that he must ponder and examine his feelings and work with them as a craftsman, draft by draft. It’s always possible that the lightning of inspiration will produce a fine hymn, but in fact the creative blazes are usually ignited by laborious sparks. A sincere spiritual experience does not automatically yield a fine hymn.

    2. 2.

      Here Elder Pratt notes the importance of sticking with the central focus. Many hymn texts fail because well-meaning writers have just tried to convey too many ideas. A single hymn might refer to the afterlife, repentance, the priesthood, the Restoration, and obedience, rather than developing one important topic by giving it new insights and meaning. A hymn can be a direct prayer (for example, Elder Pratt’s “As the Dew from Heaven Distilling”), or like this one it can describe and comment on the Father’s work and creations. But it should not mix purposes or topics.

    3. 3.

      Some fine hymns (”I Need Thee Every Hour”) use first person, singular pronouns (“I,” “me,” “my”). But often, since the singing of hymns is a congregational experience rather than a private one, the plural pronouns (“we,” “us,” “our”) work better with most subjects.

    4. 4.

      This double-meter rule is not a hard and fast one, since some of our favorite hymns (“Praise to the Lord,” “Redeemer of Israel”) are in triple meter. But hymn writers usually prefer double meter, and Elder Pratt is wise here in referring to a standard, respected hymn text as a metrical model. The pattern he chooses is long meter, abbreviated L.M. in the hymnbook index (w = weak syllable, S = strong syllable).

      wS wS wS wS
      wS wS wS wS
      wS wS wS wS
      wS wS wS wS

      (Another example of long meter is “Behold the Great Redeemer Die.”)

      Two other useful and important patterns are common meter, abbreviated C.M. (examples are “Great the Wisdom and the Love” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”),

      wS wS wS wS
      wS wS wS
      wS wS wS wS
      wS wS wS

      and short meter, abbreviated S.M. (examples are “We Give Thee but Thine Own” and “How Gentle God’s Commands”).

      wS wS wS
      wS wS wS
      wS wS wS wS
      wS wS wS

    5. 5.

      Elder Pratt is dealing here with one of the great challenges of hymn writing: the language must be simple enough to have immediate meaning for the entire congregation, yet slang or highly informal usage is as inappropriate as language that is awkwardly complex or old-fashioned. Note also that Elder Pratt avoids wrenching words out of their natural order just to obtain a rhyme. He also avoids verb endings like “breaketh, ” though traditional prayer language would of course be suitable if the hymn itself were actually a prayer. This one is not.

    6. 6.

      In other kinds of poetry, a poet may deliberately vary the meter for special effect. But, as Elder Pratt notes here, a hymn text must match the same tune, stanza after stanza. If a word contradicts the syllable stress of the chosen pattern (“radiant” is Sw, not wS), then the stresses of the word rhythms will not fit the musical stresses when that verse is sung. A good hymn text will also match the same general mood at the same places in each verse.

    7. 7.

      Elder Pratt has too much experience and intelligence to join in the naive objection of some would-be hymn writers: “All these rules stifle my creativity. ”A fine creative artist realizes that rules and conventions can lead toward even greater creativity. For example, our fictional account assumes that the idea of “Zion’s standard” would not have occurred to Elder Pratt unless he had been searching for a rhyme with “world.” Meter, too, can enhance creativity, as a writer experiments to find the words that will carry the greatest meaning within the prescribed number of syllables. It is true, of course, that a fine hymn can be entirely nontraditional. But in general, hymn writing is not a time for discarding traditional forms. Rather it is an opportunity to choose these forms carefully and then use them to foster creativity.